TAHOMA STATE FOREST — I heard the distant growl of an engine as my wife and I tidied up the cozy yurt we had skied to the previous day amid evergreen boughs laden with snow.
Soon, a snowmobile pulled up to the clearing, resting at 4,100 feet in the Tahoma State Forest. The driver came inside carrying armfuls of freshly laundered dish rags and pillowcases. Outside, I spied a Costco-sized package of toilet paper.
Was this backcountry Amazon Prime delivery service?
Such is the dedication of Ski Patrol volunteers like Rose Vanderhoof, an Ashford retiree and the unpaid manager for the six-person-capacity yurt — aptly called The Yurt — one of four structures maintained by the Mount Tahoma Trails Association (MTTA), a nonprofit celebrating its 30th winter of rustic backcountry accommodations on its system of trails near Mount Rainier National Park.
As Vanderhoof collected dirty linens and swapped St. Patrick’s Day decorations for an Easter theme, I shook my head in disbelief. She kept The Yurt, 6 miles from the nearest trailhead and another 7 miles from the nearest paved road, in better shape than my wife and I kept our Capitol Hill apartment.
That visit in 2017, one of seven I’ve taken over the years, crystallized why so many keep coming back to the MTTA for a unique slice of winter fun. While it may lack the alpine grandeur of expensive hut systems in British Columbia or the Alps, at just $15 per berth per night, the MTTA’s homegrown huts — The Yurt, High Hut, Bruni’s Snow Bowl Hut and Copper Creek Hut — are an undeniably charming grassroots labor of love.
And it didn’t happen overnight.
In the late 1980s, state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) unit forester Bob Brown managed land outside Ashford. Brown, who had taken up cross-country skiing in Mount Rainier National Park, dreamed up a proposal for backcountry huts, connected by ski trails, built on DNR land — an idea inspired by the 10th Mountain Division Huts in Colorado.
“You had a road system, places with great views of Mount Rainier, and it was all snow-covered in the winter,” Brown says. “It was a no-brainer: You had everything there except for huts and signage.”
Brown, since retired as a liaison between the DNR and MTTA, remains a passionate volunteer. He spoke to The Seattle Times last month after spending three days at one of the huts fixing a radio system.
Thinking back 30 years, though, he doesn’t give himself much credit. “It’s easy to come up with an idea,” he said. “What’s more difficult is to have it come to reality.”
Through a combined effort from the Eatonville Chamber of Commerce, the DNR, Mount Rainier National Park and the Champion Lumber Company, Brown and some like-minded folks cobbled together enough public money and donations to sketch out a 20-mile, four-hut system in 1990 under a Washington state charter. The four huts came up in the following couple of years.
But the operation was shoestring in the early days: High Hut — which can sleep eight adventurers (plus Ski Patrol staff) on a promontory with a breathtaking, panoramic view of Mount Rainier, Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens — was built with $15,000 worth of lumber, bought on credit. Eventually, a $190,000 appropriation from DNR stabilized the operation. The High Hut was rebuilt from its makeshift origins after the MTTA received DNR funding; the original Snow Bowl burned down in 2007 and was resurrected in 2011; The Yurt and Copper Creek are originals.
From day one, demand for winter weekends outstripped supply. Today, an annual lottery for hut reservations takes place at the REI flagship store in South Lake Union in early November. (The MTTA is testing a trial system for cancellations, so those who missed the lottery can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to join the waiting list.) At $10 per ticket, the standing-room-only event yielded about $16,000 this year — my wife and I snagged one night at The Yurt — which goes a long way toward the $50,000 annual budget that keeps the MTTA afloat (and the trails maintained).
Brown estimated 50-70 volunteers spend 4,000-8,000 hours per year tending to the system, time spent on everything from fixing up the huts to patrolling the trails. Volunteers patrol at least one day a month during the winter season and spend one weekend day staffing the office in Ashford. Volunteers must be 18 years old and receive first-aid training.
While weekend reservations in the huts are hard to come by, the MTTA makes for a delightful weeknight getaway. There’s the possibility to leave town at lunchtime and make it to a hut before sunset, especially once longer days arrive in March.
The trails are groomed for cross-country skiing, but snowshoes work just fine for non-skiers — as long as you wear them. While the low-elevation trailhead can lead to bare spots, once the snow is consistent, wear snowshoes — even with firm, packed snow — to avoid “postholing,” or punching holes in the snow surface, which poses dangers to skiers and causes the trail to melt faster.
The huts are propane-heated — a three-season sleeping bag is sufficient for comfortable slumber — and come fully stocked with sleeping pads and cooking equipment. Snowmelt provides an abundant water source. Unlike camping, the setup is ideal to haul in the ingredients for a gourmet meal. But unlike casual hiking, the experience can be grueling: trudging through snow for 4-plus miles is no small task, so come prepared for a haul, whether on snowshoes or skis.
Three decades since the birth of the MTTA, Brown still revels in the variety of the experience.
“Our hut managers take personal ownership — there are a lot of things about Rose’s little abode that stand out,” he said. “Snow Bowl and Copper Creek have hot and cold running water. But the High Hut manager says mine is rustic, and I will never have hot running water.”
“All the huts have their own personality,” Brown said with a laugh.
Try out all four this winter and find which hut best suits you. During the winter season, a Washington State Parks Sno-Park Permit is required. For the rest of the season, bring your Discover Pass. Happy hutting!
Mount Tahoma Trails Association, 29815 State Route 706, Ashford; 360-569-2451